Putting the Nixon Tape in Context
For someone who lost in the Holocaust many members of my immediate family and a large proportion of those with whom I grew up, it is hurtful to see an out-of-context remark being taken so contrary to its intentions and to my convictions, which were profoundly shaped by these events. References to gas chambers have no place in political discourse, and I am sorry I made that remark 37 years ago.
In his Dec. 21 column, ['Beyond Kissinger's realism'], Michael Gerson used comments I made during a one-minute conversation with Richard Nixon to draw a contrast between the moral insensitivity of the so-called foreign policy realists and the broader humanistic view of their critics. As a general subject, this is beyond the scope of an op-ed comment. In this specific case, further reflection might counsel a limit to righteousness.
Context matters. Gerson presents the issue of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union in the 1970s as if it had been an abstract debate between those who relied on a relaxation of tensions and advocates of ideological confrontation, in which the realists were willing to sacrifice Jewish emigration on the altar of detente. The opposite is true. That emigration existed at all was due to the actions of "realists" in the White House. Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union had never been put forward by any administration as a formal American position, not because of moral insensitivity but because intense crises imposed other priorities. In 1969, we introduced it into the presidential channel as a humanitarian issue because we judged that a foreign policy confrontation would lead to rejection and an increase of tensions with the Soviets. As a result, Jewish emigration rose from 700 a year in 1969 to near 40,000 in 1972. The total in Nixon's first term was more than 100,000. We also submitted, with some success, several hundred hardship cases at regular intervals. To maintain this flow by quiet diplomacy, we never used these figures for political purposes.
The issue became public because of the success of our Middle East policy when Egypt evicted Soviet advisers. To restore its relations with Cairo, the Soviet Union put a tax on Jewish emigration. There was no Jackson-Vanik Amendment until there was a successful emigration effort.
Sen. Henry Jackson, for whom I had, and continue to have, high regard, sought to remove the tax with his amendment. We thought the continuation of our previous approach of quiet diplomacy was the wiser course. But the issue became intense only when, the tax having been removed by our previous methods of quiet diplomacy, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment was institutionalized.
The conversation at issue arose not as a policy statement by me but in response to a request by the president that I should appeal to Sens. Javits and Jackson and explain why we thought their approach unwise. My answer tried to sum up that context in a kind of shorthand that, when read 37 years later, is undoubtedly offensive. It was addressed to a president who had committed himself to that issue and had never used it for political purpose to preserve its humanitarian framework.
The comment to Nixon that emigration was not a subject of foreign policy has to be seen in that context.
The conversation should also be understood as having occurred within 15 minutes of a meeting between Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir that was attended also, and only, by myself and Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin. That meeting agreed on military deliveries (especially airplanes), a peace process via the White House, a negotiating position and steps to encourage Egypt to leave its alliance with the Soviet Union. It was to preserve that strategy that Nixon asked me to call the two senators.
Events proved our judgment correct. Jewish emigration fell to about a third of its previous high, not to be resumed at substantial levels for 20 years, as Gerson admits. That was during the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Gerson ascribes the collapse of the Soviet Union in part to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. The amendment played no significant role in what resulted from imperial overstretch, incompetent economic management and the determined resistance of a succession of presidents from both parties, culminating in the Reagan period.
Gerson sneers at detente as if it were a kind of moral abdication. Memories are short. The conversation under discussion occurred on March 1, 1973. The Vietnam War had just ended; prisoners had not yet returned.
An effective global strategy was in place with the opening to China, a broad dialogue with the Soviet Union, and major progress in Egypt and on emigration. It was to preserve that policy that the conversation in the Oval Office took place, and it is in that context that it must be viewed.
The writer was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977.